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History of Cinemas in Film

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Ever since 35 curiosity-seeking Parisians paid Louis and Auguste Lumière one franc each to watch the first projected moving images on 28 December 1895, people have taken sitting in the darkness with complete strangers for granted in order to enjoy the communal experience of going to the pictures. Now, for the first time in 125 years, there will be a certain trepidation as patrons take their seats when film theatres re-open after the Coronavirus lockdown. In order to mark the return of moviegoing, Cinema Paradiso looks back at how cinemas have been seen on screen.

Much changed between the opening of the first nickelodeon in Pittsburgh in June 1905 and the completion of the global roll-out of digital projection at the end of 2017. Yet, throughout this period, one thing remained the same. In seeking to make a connection with their audiences, directors have consistently included in their films shots of enraptured faces gazing up at a screen because they act as a form of subliminal advertising. The more we see people on screen roaring with laughter, shedding a tear, sitting on the edge of their seat in suspense or jumping out of it in terror, the more comfortable we feel in doing exactly the same thing ourselves. Consequently, pictures across the generic range have included scenes set in cinemas. We can't pretend to have spotted each one in the 100,000 titles available from Cinema Paradiso. But we think we've come up with a decent selection, although you're more than welcome to let us know if you have a favourite movie-going moment that we've not managed to mention.

Up in the Projection Booth

A still from Sherlock Jr. (1924)
A still from Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Since it opened on Station Street in Birmingham in 1909, The Electric has witnessed every passing fad and permanent transformation in exhibition history. In recalling these technical and presentational changes in The Last Projectionist (2011), documentarist Thomas Lawes also reflects on the evolving craft of screening motion pictures with an affectionate sense of nostalgia that can't help but transport us back to cinema's first self-reflexive masterpiece, Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. (1924). Although he has ambitions to become a great detective, Buster has to earn a crust as a projectionist and the sequence in which he wanders through the auditorium and climbs into the screen showing the serial Hearts & Pearls, or The Lounge Lizard's Lost Love contains a string of cross-cutting gags that is so inspired it has yet to be surpassed.

The projectionist is knocked cold so that a murder suspect can burn a hole in an incriminating piece of celluloid in Edwin L. Marin's The Death Kiss (1932), a Hollywood studio whodunit starring Bela Lugosi. But Shemp Howard emerges unscathed after he sets the mayhem in motion in HC Potter's scattershot musical romp, Hellzapoppin' (1941), which stars the comedy duo, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.

A still from Sunset Boulevard (1950) With Gloria Swanson
A still from Sunset Boulevard (1950) With Gloria Swanson

Director-turned-butler Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim) operates the projector so that ex-wife Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) can relive some of her old glories in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950). Intriguingly, the footage they are watching came from the unfinished Queen Kelly on which Von Stroheim and Swanson had collaborated in 1928. Robert Ryan plays a more malicious Californian projectionist as Barbara Stanwyck returns home after a decade away in Fritz Lang's Clash By Night (1952).

The nouvelle vague was in full swing by the time that Cléo (Corinne Marchand) and Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) deliver a film to Parisian projectionist Raoul (Raymond Cauchetier) in Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). Guesting in the silent short they watch from the booth are Anna Karina and her director husband, Jean-Luc Godard, who would let his old friend down by failing to keep a rendezvous in her final feature, Varda By Agnès (2019). Three years after showing Jack Palance upset a projectionist by knocking over a stack of film cans in Contempt (1963), Godard himself included a scene in which Jean-Pierre Léaud shouts at a cinema projectionist for showing a picture in the wrong aspect ratio in Masculin Féminin (1966).

Across the Channel that same year, Hywel Bennett's job as a projectionist exacerbates the problem he and new bride Hayley Mills have in consummating their marriage in Roy Boulting's The Family Way, which boasts a score by Paul McCartney, who would have his own projection problems in Peter Webb's Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984) when an assistant loses some valuable cans of film. Inspired by Federico Fellini's (1963), the daydreams McCartney experiences compare to the superhero reveries that Chuck McCann has while imagining himself into the movies he shows in Harry Hurwitz's The Projectionist (1970), which should be available more widely, as it contains the first use of archival superimposition in screen history.

By contrast, Wim Wenders's Kings of the Road (1976) has become one of the key works of Das Neue Kino. Exquisitely photographed in monochrome by Robby Müller, the action follows projector repairman Rüdiger Vogler along the East German border, as he reminisces with an old pianist about playing along to such silent classics as Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924) and a cinema owner who would rather close down than screen the softcore pornography that was in vogue in the mid-1970s.

A still from Wish You Were Here (1987)
A still from Wish You Were Here (1987)

When not keeping an eye on Madonna for his best mate, Aidan Quinn works as a projectionist in Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and even has some film cans unspooled when his apartment is ransacked. Things become equally fraught for projectionist Tom Bell when he becomes besotted with teenager Emily Lloyd in David Leland's account of Cynthia Payne's youth on the 1950s Sussex coast, Wish You Were Here (1987), which includes a screening of Leslie Arliss's Love Story (1944) that was filmed at The Dome in Worthing.

For obvious reasons, our favourite projection room is the one operated by Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988). The look of wonderment on the face of young Salvatore Di Vita (Salvatore Cascio) as he watches the classics of postwar Italian cinema is a joy to behold and it's just a shame that Ettore Scola's Splendor (1989) isn't also available, as the small-town venue owned by Marcello Mastroianni also screens its share of timeless classics. Perhaps Scola should have devised his own grand finale on a par with the magical montage of the kisses that Tornatore's priest had snipped out of the films showing in his parish.

Curiously, we can offer Mila Turajlic's documentary, Cinema Komunisto (2010), which features Leka Konstantinovic, who was the private projectionist to Yugoslavia's postwar president, Josip Tito.

A prison projection booth provides the setting for one of the most shocking scenes in Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's The Shawshank Redemption (1994), as the projectionist (Joe Pecoraro) is ordered by Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston) to leave in the middle of a screening of Charles Vidor's Rita Hayworth vehicle, Gilda (1946), so that he can assault Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins). And it's a screening of Mark Sandrich's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gem, Top Hat (1935), that prompts Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) to recall his time as a guard at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in another Darabont take on a King story, The Green Mile (1999).

In introducing his friend, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) in David Fincher's Fight Club (1999), the Narrator (Edward Norton) offers a crash course in the projectionist's art as we learn how Tyler mischievously cuts pornographic snippets into family films. Remember the nickname given to the white cue marks on a reel of celluloid, as it will come in handy when watching 'Cigarette Burns', John Carpenter's contribution to the first season of Masters of Horror (2005).

While moonlighting as a projectionist at the cinema owned by Mako, pickpocket Seann William Scott also picks up some useful tips from watching martial arts movies like Norman Tsui's Descendants of Wing Chun (1978). However, he meets his match in Chow Yun-Fat's eponymous fighting machine in Paul Hunter's Bulletproof Monk (2003). Although we don't get to see him at work, projectionist Rick Marshall is mentioned among the suspects in David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) and San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) does get to visit the film collection of his cinema organist buddy, Bob Vaughan (Charles Fleischer).

Alan Harbud plays the projectionist trying to please substance-fuelled indie film-maker Peter Howitt in the self-directed adaptation of Stuart Browne's novel, Dangerous Parking (2007), while New Yorker Ronald Bronstein struggles to raise his two sons on a projectionist's salary in Josh and Benny Safdie's debut feature, Daddy Longlegs (2009). The problem facing 1950s Irish priest Martin Sheen in Thaddeus O'Sullivan's take on Michael Doorley's book, Stella Days (2011), is how to persuade the conservative residents of Borrisokane to let him launch a community cinema. The eagle-eyed will recognise the clips from Charles Vidor's Cover Girl (1944), Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity (1953) and George Cukor's It Should Happen to You (1954).

Projection beams cast a little light on the dark deeds of the purveyors of Mumbai's C-grade horror and porn movies in the debuting Ashim Ahluwalia's Miss Lovely (2012), which earned comparisons with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Wong Kar Wai's Chungking Express (1994). The mood is equally sombre in Ryan M. Kennedy's An Act of War (2015), as Russ Russo takes a job as a projectionist in a fleapit cinema after returning from service in the Middle East with a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that exacerbates his talent for making enemies.

A Quick Trip to the Flicks

A still from The Fanatic (2019)
A still from The Fanatic (2019)

As we mentioned earlier, film-makers can't resist slotting scenes of moviegoing into their storylines, as they seek to emphasise the connection between the characters on screen and the paying customers. There are literally hundreds of examples of incidents set inside or outside famous theatres. Indeed, there's even a blog dedicated to the film appearances of LA's historic movie theatres. So, check it out to find out about the landmarks included in such diverse offerings as George Cukor's A Star Is Born (1954), Boris Segal's The Omega Man (1971), John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975) and Fred Durst's The Fanatic (2019).

Our whistlestop tour of drop-in moments begins with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello accidentally joining up for the US Army when trying to hide in a cinema in Arthur Lubin's Buck Privates (1941). Clandestine lovers Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard also opt for the two and ninepennies in catching the afternoon performance at the Palladium Cinema in David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945). The same year also saw the release of Max Nosseck's Dillinger, which culminates in Lawrence Tierney's eponymous mobster being gunned down by the police outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago after watching WS Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama (1934). And the same fate awaits Warren Oates in John Milius's Dillinger (1973) and Johnny Depp in Michael Mann's Public Enemies (2009).

The famous Grauman's Chinese Theatre stages the big finale in Mel Brooks's Blazing Saddles (1974), while the audience is denied the long-awaited premiere in the same director's Silent Movie (1976) after the sole print is stolen and Bernadette Peters has to fill in with her nightclub shtick. Ann Marie Mudge (Aileen Quinn) also breaks into song ('Let's Go to the Movies') after seeing Greta Garbo headline George Cukor's Camille (1936) at New York's Radio City Music Hall in John Huston's take on the hit Broadway musical, Annie (1982). In Will Gluck's 2014 remake, foster child Annie Bennett Stacks (Quvenzhane Wallis) is more restrained in her response to attending the premiere of MoonQuake Lake.

A still from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
A still from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Back in 1916, first-time moviegoer Carmen (Patricia Martinez) doesn't realise that Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase) and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) are just silent movie actors when she pleads with them to defend her Mexican village from the cruel El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) in John Landis's comedy, ¡Three Amigos! (1986). By contrast, maverick cop Chuck Norris never needs any assistance and is ready to confront serial killer Jack O'Halloran when he tracks him down to his movie theatre lair in William Tanner's Hero and the Terror (1988). The same year also saw private eye Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) and his animated pal hide out in a cinema, where they learn about the machinations of Maroon Cartoons from a newsreel in Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Projectionist Jacob Vargas offers sanctuary to sisters Fairuza Balk and Ione Skye in the Sunne Cineman in Allison Anders's Gas Food Lodging (1992), but out-of-work actor Joe Pesci doesn't get to see his name up in lights above Grauman's Egyptian Theatre before a showdown with the cops in Barry Levinson's Jimmy Hollywood (1994). This grand venue closed down around the time the film was made and it's clear that ex-pat Colin Firth's Buenos Aires revival house is also on its last legs, as he revels in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958) in the opening scene of Martin Donovan's thriller, Apartment Zero (1988).

Back in Blighty, Om Puri drags his kids to watch a Bollywood movie, even though they don't understand a single word of the dialogue in Damien O'Donnell's East Is East (1999), while the same year saw William Thacker (Hugh Grant) sitting in The Coronet trying to fathom the appeal of Helix, the sci-fi film starring Hollywood superstar Anna Scott (Julia Roberts) in Roger Michell's Notting Hill (1999), which wraps with a glitzy premiere at the Empire Leicester Square.

Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) catch Buster Keaton in Alfred S. Rogell's Li'l Abner (1940) at the Art Deco American Theater in Charleston in Nick Cassavetes's The Notebook (2004), while six-time divorcée Bernadette (Kathy Baker) has a brainwave while attending a film festival in Robin Swicord's The Jane Austen Book Club (2007). A videotape of Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982) prompts Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) to enter Screen Test's Young Filmmakers' Competition and he gets to see his effort premiere at a real cinema in the last reel of Garth Jennings's charming rite of passage, Son of Rambow (2007). Equally delightful is the sight of the young Carl Fredrickson (Jeremy Leary) drinking in the newsreel exploits of Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer) in the monochrome flashback in Peter Docter and Bob Peterson's Pixar classic, Up (2009).

Proving that 'Adventure is out there!', sisters Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin stop outside Grauman's to buy maps to the homes of the stars in order to help them keep one step ahead of the brain munchers in Reuben Fleischer's Zombieland (2009). If you think that's weird, wait until you see what a young child and a dog are up to when The Sleeper wanders into a packed auditorium in the opening scene of Leos Carax's Holy Motors. Second World War veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is also dozing in a movie theatre when he gets a call from Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the founder of the philosophical movement known as 'The Cause', in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (both 2012).

On what's going to prove to be anything other than just another day, Paige Collins (Rachel McAdams) and husband Leo (Channing Tatum) emerge from a movie theatre at the start of Michael Sucsy's The Vow (2012), although the bad news awaiting Paterson (Adam Driver) and Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is nowhere near as calamitous in Jim Jarmusch's Paterson (2016), as they get home from a night at the flicks to discover that Marvin the dog has shredded a notebook full of poems. But things turn out better for Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) in Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning The Shape of Water (2017) when she discovers that the Amphibian Man she has liberated from a government laboratory in Baltimore has gone missing from her apartment and she's relieved to find him standing alone in the middle of the empty auditorium of the magnificent Orpheum theatre transfixed by the CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color action in Henry Koster's biblical epic, The Story of Ruth (1960).

Front of House

For once, French pioneer Georges Méliès can't shed much light on the situation, as when he was at the peak of his powers around the turn of the 20th century, moving images were screened in variety theatres, fairground booths and store-front kiosks rather than purpose-built cinemas. Patrons huddled together on hard wooden benches to watch a selection of one-reel depictions of daily life, as well as short dramatic interludes, historical recreations, slapstick novelties and trick films that made us of the camera's unique ability to tweak reality through such techniques as superimposition, masking, stop-frame substitutions and under- or over-cranking the handle that wound the film strip through the camera mechanism to change the speed of the action.

We get an idea of Méliès's world in Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011), an adaptation of Brian Selznick's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which shows a small boy discovering the hidden past of the man who runs the toy stall at Gare Montparnasse in 1930s Paris. Another movie pioneer, William Friese-Greene, was commemorated in John Boulting's The Magic Box (1951), which concludes with the long-forgotten inventor (Robert Donat) dying at a 1921 film industry conference at the Connaught Rooms in London with less than the price of a cinema ticket in his pocket.

A still from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) With Michael J. Pollard
A still from Bonnie and Clyde (1967) With Michael J. Pollard

Back in 1914, Charlie Chaplin plucked the last coin from the sock he uses as a wallet in order to see Mabel Norman in The Champion Driver in A Film Johnnie. However, he manages to cause chaos inside the nickelodeon and, on being turfed out, decides to head to the studio to meet his idol in a 12-minute short that can be found on the BFI's Chaplin At Keystone collection. Compare this venue with the Broadway theatres in which James Cagney gets to stage the live-action prologues before movie screenings in Lloyd Bacon's Footlight Parade (1933). It must have been quite a stage to accommodate the 'By a Waterfall' number and we get to see a bit more of Busby Berkeley's extravagant choreography, as Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) and Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) marvel at the 'We're in the Money' routine from Mervyn LeRoy's Gold Diggers of 1933 while hiding in a cinema after a robbery in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

A keen student of screen history, Peter Bogdanovich named Nickelodeon (1976), his paean to the early days of Hollywood, after America's first movie houses. However, magnificent dream palaces were the order of the day by the time Don Ameche realises that silent pictures will be consigned to history after witnessing the audience reaction to Alan Crosland's The Jazz Singer (1927) in Irving Cummings's Hollywood Cavalcade (1939).

Cinema scenes abound in two further films about the advent of sound. Gene Kelly arrives at the premiere of The Royal Rascal to reflect upon the troublesome transition to talkies in Singin' in the Rain (1952), which Kelly co-directed with Stanley Donen. And the Oscar-winning Jean Dujardin and his faithful dog Uggie have their own problems when the silent melodrama, Tears of Love, is out-performed at the box office by Bérénice Bejo's sound sensation, Beauty Spot, in Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist (2011), which became the first silent to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since William A. Wellman's Wings (1927).

While a number of major silent stars failed to find a niche in talkies, directors like Alfred Hitchcock quickly took to working with dialogue. In adapting Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent as Sabotage (1936), Hitch gave the action a cinematic setting. Moreover, he made striking use of the Disney cartoon, Who Killed Cock Robin?, to anticipate the anguish that Sylvia Sidney is going to feel on discovering the fate of her young brother. The same studio's Playful Pluto helps Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) recognise the value of laughter in Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (1941) when he decides to stop churning out comedies like Ants in Your Plants of 1939 in order to make a serious treatise on the Depression, whose title would be borrowed by Joel and Ethan Coen for their own 1930s odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Staying with the cartoon theme, Warner animator Bob Clampett's Bacall to Arms (1946) is also set in a movie theatre and its pastiches of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart make it an unmissable extra on Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not (1944).

FW Murnau's Tabu (1931) is on the bill at the Cherbourg cinema run by Jean Gabin in Marcel Carné's adaptation of Georges Simenon's La Marie du Port (1950). Built into the basement of a busy café, this atmospheric venue contrasts starkly with the Bijou, a rundown fleapit in the grimy town of Sloughborough that is inherited by Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna in Basil Dearden's The Smallest Show on Earth (1957). There are several amusing moments, as the pair try to compete with the deluxe Grand Cinema across town. But the most poignant scene sees cashier Margaret Rutherford playing the piano and commissionaire Bernard Miles and projectionist Peter Sellers wiping away a quiet tear during an after-hours screening of Cecil Hepworth's 1923 silent, Comin' Thro' the Rye.

Owned by Ben Johnson, the Royal Theatre in Anarene, Texas is also on its last legs in Peter Bogdanovich's interpretation of Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show (1971), which earned eight Oscar nominations for its evocation of small-town America in the early 1950s. Back in the Depression era, the eponymous New York thoroughfare in Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933) was synonymous with showbiz glamour. But its theatres had been converted into porn cinemas by the time Martin Scorsese made Taxi Driver (1976) and sent Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) and Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to the Lyric Theatre to see Sometime Sweet Susan.

In fact, the clip is from Torgny Wickham's The Language of Love (1969), a Swedish softcore documentary that Mary Whitehouse tried to have banned in Britain. She is parodied as Lady Longhorn in Martin Campbell's saucy comedy, Eskimo Nell (1975), which parodied the porn industry and featured a model named Mary Maxted, whose sad life and times are related in Simon Sheridan's documentary, Respectable: The Mary Millington Story (2016).

By a curious quirk of fate, there is a Sesame Street close to the Lyric Theatre and some of the loveable puppets who had featured in the children's educational series of the same name take over a cinema to view their own starring vehicle in James Frawley's The Muppet Movie (1979). Unfortunately, they asked Animal to be the projectionist and mayhem ensues, although it's not quite on the scale of the carnage that follows the singalong to 'Heigh-Ho' from Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) in Joe Dante's darkly comic romp, Gremlins. There was also a neat film theatre gag featuring Hulk Hogan in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), but it had to be changed for the video and DVD release. See if you can spot the join.

There's a similar feel to the action in Thom Eberhardt's Night of the Comet (both 1984), which sees Catherine Mary Stewart survive the Earth's passage through the tail of a comet by having spent the night in the steel-lined booth at the cinema where boyfriend Michael Bowen works as a projectionist. It's safe to say they get up to some mischief, but it's more consensual than the despicable popcorn box trick that Boogie Shefrell plays on Carol Heathrow (Colette Blonigan) during a screening of Delmer Daves's A Summer Place (1959) in Barry Levinson's hymn to 1950s Baltimore, Diner (1982).

Cinemas crop up regularly in the films of Woody Allen, whether Allan Felix is losing himself in the magic of Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942) in Herbert Ross's Play It Again, Sam (1972), film-maker Sandy Bates is complaining about fans only wanting to see his early funny films in Stardust Memories (1980) or Mickey rediscovering a zest for life after watching Sam Wood's Marx Brothers classic, Duck Soup (1933), in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Allen and Bette Midler even make out to Mira Nair's hard-hitting study of poverty, Salaam Bombay! (1988), in Paul Mazursky's Scenes From a Mall (1991).

A still from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
A still from The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

But Allen excelled himself with The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), which sees Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) become distracted while playing an archaeologist in an RKO melodrama that he climbs through the screen to introduce himself to Cecilia (Mia Farrow), a put-upon New Jersey waitress who uses movies as her escape from the grinding realities of the Depression. Echoes of Allen's conceit can be heard in Pole Wojciech Marczewski's Escape From the 'Liberty' Cinema (1990) or, at least, they would be if the cast of Daybreak hadn't fallen silent in protest at the local censor hacking chunks out of their script.

John Lamont's Konga (1961) comes in handy, along with Quentin Lawrence's The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Ib Melchior's The Angry Red Planet (1959), when a spaceship lands near the small town of Dead Rock in Robert Skotak's Invasion Earth: The Aliens Are Here (1988), and the kids who have been attending a sci-fi marathon at the Colonial Cinema get to put what they have learnt into action.

It's two for the price of one where Nanni Moretti's Opening Day of Close-Up is concerned, as you can view this droll item on Cinema 16: European Short Films (2006) and double it up with the feature that inspired it, Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up (1990). Moretti filmed the short at his Nuovo Sacher cinema in Rome. But he isn't the only director with his own cinema, as Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose career is assessed in Torben Skjødt Jensen's documentary, Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier (1995), ran the Dagmar Theatre in Copenhagen.

In order to prepare for his role in Blood on the Asphalt, pampered Hollywood A-lister Nick Lang (Michael J. Fox) tails NYPD lieutenant John Moss (James Woods) in John Badham's The Hard Way (1991), which includes scenes set atop a billboard advertising Smoking Gunn II and at the premiere of The Good, the Badge and the Ugly, in which Moss discovers that Lang has been stealing his quips. A golden ticket that once belonged to escapologist Harry Houdini allows Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) to be transported from his cinema seat into the heart of the latest crime flick built around LAPD maverick Jack Slater (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in John McTiernan's Last Action Hero (1993).

Meta-cinema fans will enjoy the gag about John Practice not being trustworthy because he's being played by the actor (the Oscar-winning F. Murray Abraham) who had shafted Mozart in Miloš Forman's Amadeus (1984). And it's hard not to smile at the fact that Monsieur Montana, the ruthless hitman played by Jean Reno in Luc Besson's Leon (1994), is a huge fan of Gene Kelly musicals like It's Always Fair Weather (1955), in which he tap dances on rollerskates during the 'I Like Myself' number.

Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) is more of an Elvis Presley fan in Tony Scott's Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance (1993). But he hooks up with Alabama Whitman (Patricia Arquette) at a kung-fu movie showing at a Detroit cinema. They have no problem proving their age, but the meddling censors have ensured that Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman are too young to see Asses of Fire, the latest film starring their heroes, Terrance and Philip. So, they have to persuade a homeless man to take them into the R-rated movie in Trey Parker's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999).

The debt is very obviously to Frank Capra's Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) in Frank Darabont's The Majestic (2001). But references to factual and fictional movies abound, as amnesiac Jim Carrey turns up in Lawson, California and helps Martin Landau restore the local cinema.

Jack Ryder hopes to make an impression on the girl of his dreams Jodi Albert by landing a job at the multiplex where she works in Darren Paul Fisher's Popcorn (2007). But his first day is her last in a rom-com that was filmed at the Odeon Greenwich. The Palais des Festivals in Cannes provides the setting for an audacious jewel robbery by Rebecca Romijn in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002) and Rowan Atkinson plugging his video diary into the projector to ensure that Emma de Caunes has her moment in Willem Dafoe's opus in Steve Bendelack's Mr Bean's Holiday (2007).

A still from Man in the Chair (2007)
A still from Man in the Chair (2007)

We stay in France to visit Le Gamaar, the Parisian picture palace that gets to host an explosive premiere of the Nazi propaganda piece, Stolz der Nation, in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009), which warns about the flammable danger of nitrate film. The art of wartime infotainment is celebrated in Lone Scherfig's Their Finest (2016) and, while all of this was going on in Europe, Flash (Christopher Plummer) was serving his apprenticeship in Hollywood. Indeed, high-school student Cameron (Michael Angarano) discovers during a screening at the Beverly Cinema that he is the sole surviving crew member of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). Who better, therefore, to help him make the short film that is his summer assignment in Michael Schroeder's Man in the Chair (2007) ?

Cineastes tend to lap up this kind of detail and they will be in Seventh Art heaven during Federico Veiroj's A Useful Life (2010), which chronicles the efforts of Jorge Jellinek and Manuel Martinez to prevent the closure of the Cinemateca Uruguaya in Montevideo by hosting such novel presentations as a live translation of Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924). On the evidence of John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr Banks (2013), Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) would have admired such tenacity, as he had his work cut out to persuade Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) to allow him to fulfil his long-cherished dream to adapt her stories about a magical nanny as Mary Poppins (1964).

It's tempting to compare Travers's changing reaction to the film during its premiere at Grauman's Chinese with the evident delight that Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) takes in Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood (2019) in paying for her own ticket to watch the reaction of the audience at the Bruin Theatre to her performance in Phil Karlson's action caper, The Wrecking Crew (1968). Robin the Boy Wonder's response to Batman Again is less than positive, but his friends rally round so that he can attend the premiere of a superhero picture about him in Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath's Teen Titans GO! to the Movies (2018).

But few on-screen trips to the cinema capture the magic of the medium more thrillingly than when Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) takes Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) to the Griffin Observatory that they had just seen in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and trip the light fantastic in Damien Chazelle's La La Land (2016). This tied the record for 14 Oscar nominations held by Joseph L. Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950) and James Cameron's Titanic (1997), only to famously lose out to Barry Jenkins's Moonlight after an envelope malfunction at the 89th Academy Awards.

Stranded At the Drive-In

The first film shown at a drive-in theatre was Siegmund Lubin's Bags of Gold, which screened at the Theatre de Guadalupe in Las Cruces, New Mexico on 23 April 1915. Motor cars were still very much a novelty at this time, but there were many more vehicles on the road by the time Fred Niblos's British-made comedy, Two White Arms, screened under the title Wives Beware at Richard M. Hollingshead's New Jersey arena on 6 June 1933. But it wasn't until 1941 that RCA invented the in-car speakers that allowed patrons to adjust the volume to their required level. However, Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) tells wife Verna (Virginia Mayo) to kill the sound when they take cover from pursuing cops at the San-Val Drive-In showing Delmer Daves's Gary Cooper picture, Task Force, in Raoul Walsh's gangland classics, White Heat (both 1949).

In the 1950s and 60s, the undisputed 'King of the Drive-In' was Roger Corman, whose films about teenage delinquents, hot-rodders and bikers played right into the wheelhouse of the exploitation audience. Among his many 'discoveries' was Peter Bogdanovich, who made the transition from critic to director with Targets (1968), which concludes in spectacular style with a showdown at the Reseda drive-in between traumatised Vietnam War veteran-turned-murderous sniper Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) and ageing horror star, Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), whose farewell feature, The Terror, is playing on the giant screen.

After Rod Amateau's Drive-In (1974) had spent more time observing the small-town Texan audience at the Alamo than checking up on the main feature, Disaster 76, Stu Segal brought the slasher ethos to Drive-In Massacre (1976), which follows the efforts of cop Mike Leary (John F. Goff) to catch the serial killer preying upon the patrons of the venue managed by Austin Johnson (Robert E. Pearson) and maintained by an eccentric caretaker, Germy Garmey (Douglas Gudbye).

A still from Not Quite Hollywood (2008)
A still from Not Quite Hollywood (2008)

But the chills are more assuredly handled by Brian Trenchard-Smith in Dead End Drive-In (1986), an ingenious Ozploitation take on Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962) that is discussed in Mark Hartley's documentary, Not Quite Hollywood (2008). Amusingly, one of the films showing at the Star Drive-In, as it turns from a place of entertainment into one of detainment, is Trenchard-Smith's own Turkey Shoot (1982).

Before we return to drive-ins, we must detour to consider the handful of films that focus on what might be called drive-outs. Since the early days of the flickers, hardy souls have striven to bring the latest offerings to audiences in the farthest-flung places. Alla Surikova's wonderful Soviet musical, Man From the Boulevard des Capucines (1987), accompanies an itinerant projectionist into the lawless frontier towns of South Carolina to amaze and civilise them with the marvel of motion pictures. A mobile cinema roving 1940s rural Spain fires the imagination of young Ana Torrent after she becomes obsessed with Boris Karloff's Creature after seeing James Whales's Frankenstein (1931) in Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973).

Having driven to a village in rural Sudan to screen Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, a quartet of veteran film-makers plan to relaunch Omburdman's Revolution Cinema with a screening of Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (2012) in Suhaib Gasmelbari's delightful documentary, Talking About Trees (2019).

The educational and propagandist potential of cinema is evidenced by the footage of a drive-in cinema being used to bolster the position of General Fulgencio Batista in Mikhail Kalatazov's landmark documentary, I Am Cuba (1964). But the emphasis is firmly on escapism, as Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges hide out in a drive-in after committing a robbery at a Western Union office with George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis in Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).

In Randal Kleiser's Grease (1978), Danny Zucko (John Travolta) also tries to get up to no good while parked up after giving Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John) his ring. However, his wandering hands prompt his date to storm off in a huff and he's left to repent at his leisure while singing 'Sandy'. Stranded at the drive-in, indeed. If only he could look forward to the 'Three Great Marguerite Duras Hits' programmed by Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter) at the Baltimore drive-in that is contrasted with the porn cinema run by Elmer Fishpaw (David Samson) in John Waters's trash classic, Polyester (1981), which was released in cinemas with a scratch'n'sniff card to allow patrons to enjoy the nasal sensation of Odorama.

A still from The Outsiders (1983)
A still from The Outsiders (1983)

The scene is Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1966 in Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of SE Hinton's Young Adult classic, The Outsiders (1983). But the lure of the drive-in remains strong, as Dally (Matt Dillon), Ponyboy (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny (C. Thomas Howell) sneak in to join Cherry (Diane Lane) at a screening of William Asher's Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), the fourth of the idealised American teen pics that starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. There's more candy-coloured fantasy in Tim Burton's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), a quirky reworking of Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948) that sees Hollywood star James Brolin front a movie of the life of Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), which has its premiere at a drive-in.

Nothing can stop rooftops from being ripped off in Jan de Bont's Twister (1996), which famously includes a drive-in scene of Jack Nicholson threatening to huff and puff in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). The axe crashing into the bathroom door finds an echo in the sight of a pistol poking through the passenger window in John Singleton's Poetic Justice (1993), as Markell (Q-Tip) is shot while canoodling with girlfriend Justice (Janet Jackson) after an altercation at the concession stand at the Compton drive-in in South Central Los Angeles.

We also get a glimpse of Amy Blue (Rose McGowan) and Jordan White (James Duval) at a drive-in in The Doom Generation (1995), the second part of Gregg Araki's 'Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy' that was completed by Totally F***ed Up (1993) and Nowhere (1997). However, there's a genuine post-apocalyptic feel about the Oregon landscape in Kevin Costner's adaptation of David Brin's novel, The Postman (1997), which shows the leader of the Holnist militia, General Bethlehem (Will Patton), endlessly re-screening Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965) on his makeshift outdoor cinema.

Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) pays contrasting visits to a drive-in in Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). While accompanied by free-spirit Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet), he has fun improvising dialogue to Jack Arnold's Monster on the Campus (1958), as they watch the screen from the wrong side of the green perimeter fence. But when he parks up alone, the windows of his car start to fog up, as Joel cries over his lost memories. In a bid to put a bit of romance back into his marriage, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) takes wife Alma (Michelle Williams) to a drive-in to see Paul Newman in Martin Ritt's Hud (1963) in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). In a neat twist, this story of a rebellious rancher was adapted from Horseman, Pass By, a novel by Larry McMurtry, who shared an Oscar with Annie Proulx for reworking her short story for the screen.

At the Late Night Double Feature Picture Show

Cinema Paradiso regulars will recognise the above line from Jim Sheridan's The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as we end our survey of cinemas on-screen by recalling the midnite creepshow in all its gory glory. And where better to start than with the Colonial Theatre, which is hosting the Midnight Spook Show in Irvin Yeaworth's cult shocker, The Blob (1958) ? During its screening of John Parker's Daughter of Horror (aka Dementia, 1955), Steven Andrews (a debuting Steve McQueen) hits upon an idea to warn the residents of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania about the amoeboidal alien threatening their town.

Specialising exclusively in silent movies, the second-run house owned by Oliver Huggins (Philip Coolidge) is invaded during a screening of Henry King's Tol'able David (1921) by the slithering parasite unleashed by Dr Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) in William Castle's The Tingler (1959) and the audience is encouraged to scream in order to drive it away. During the original theatrical run, Castle fitted certain seats with a vibrating device he branded 'Percepto' to send shivers up a patron's spine. Joe Dante paid affectionate tribute to 'the King of the Gimmicks' in Matinee (1993), in which Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) almost shakes a Florida cinema to its foundations at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis with the 'Rumble-Rama' process he has concocted to promote his latest B opus, Mant!

A still from Popcorn (1991)
A still from Popcorn (1991)

Castle gets another namecheck in Mark Herrier's Popcorn (1991), as the all-nighter designed to raise funds for the Dreamland cinema sees a giant insect shoot across the auditorium on Emergo-like zip wire during the 3D spectacular, Mosquito, while Percepto is the obvious inspiration for the Shock-o-Scope device that buzzes certain seats during The Attack of the Electrified Man. Intriguingly, director John Landis had already parodied such showmanship with the 'Feel-a-Round' system on show in the 'See You Next Wednesday' sketch in The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977).

Movie buff Tim Burton would offer fond insights into the career of another fabled Z-grader, Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Ed Wood (1994), which earned Martin Landau the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Bela Lugosi alongside Johnny Depp. Wes Craven also laced his three entries in the Scream cycle with plenty of in-jokes, with college students Maureen Evans (Jada Pinkett) and Phil Stevens (Omar Epps) falling foul of Ghostface in Scream 2 (1997) at a screening of Stab, the Hollywood horror that had been spun-off from the events that had taken place in Woodsboro, California in Scream (1996).

The sight of a familiar pair of shoes in the queue for the movie made about the 1946 serial slayings in Texarkana doesn't bode well in the closing stages of Charles B. Pierce's The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976). But producers Jason Blum and Ryan Murphy spotted the potential for playing mischievous meta-games when they revived the Phantom Killer for another round of Midnight Murders in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014).

Cinema patrons perishing in their seats have become a familiar horror trope. But few films linger over the details in quite the same menacing manner as Lamberto Bava's Demons (1985), which charts the events that unfold at the renovated Metropol cinema in Berlin during the screening of a horror about the prophecies of Nostradamus that was partly filmed in locations used by the director's giallo legend father Mario in making the 1963 Boris Karloff chiller, Black Sabbath.

The humour is markedly less subtle in Jim Mallon's Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1986), which sees mad scientist Dr Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) attempt to bend the world's population to his will by subjecting them to repeated viewings of Joseph M. Newman's This Island Earth (1955), which he claims is the worst film ever made. Such scattershot wit is also in evidence in Keenan Ivory Wayan's Scary Movie (2000), which parodies such popular contemporary horrors as Scream, Jim Gillespie's I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999) in following the misadventures of Cindy Campbell (Anna Faris).

A still from Christine (1983) With John Stockwell And Alexandra Paul
A still from Christine (1983) With John Stockwell And Alexandra Paul

As the old saying almost goes, 'Hell hath no like a red Plymouth Fury scorned', as Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) discovers during a rainy night at the drive-in while watching Robert Klane's Thank God It's Friday (1978) in John Carpenter's take on Stephen King's Christine (1983). No sooner has boyfriend Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon) got out to fix a wonky windscreen wiper than the possessive car closes its doors to prevent him from helping Leigh, who is choking on a mouthful of hamburger.

The couple in the car in the opening scene of Jörg Buttgereit's Nekromantik (1987) meets a grisly end. But it's in Nekromantik 2 (1991) that we get a glimpse of a film theatre, as Mark (Mark Reeder) gets bored waiting for his friend (Simone Spörl) and offers her ticket to Monika (Monika M), a complete stranger who happens to be walking past. These contentious shockers are beyond the remit of Stuart Samuels's Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream (2005), but this documentary provides a decent overview of exploitation cinema and the cult of the late-night matinee.

It would certainly approve, for example of Jack Messitt's Midnight Movie (2008), which centres on the cinema hosting the first screening of the notorious slasher, The Dark Beneath, five years after its director, Ted Radford (Arthur Roberts), supposedly went on a killing spree after being shown the picture by his therapist while recovering from a nervous breakdown. Life further imitates art in Gavin Wilding's The Wisher (2002), as horror-fixated teenager Wendy Anderson finally finds a movie that's too scary for her. However, as she leaves the cinema, she gets the feeling that she is being followed by one of the film's creepier characters.

A still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
A still from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

In the opening scene of Brad Anderson's Vanishing on 7th Street (2010), Detroit projectionist Paul (John Leguizamo) is reading by a headlamp about the disappearance of the Roanoke Colony when a power outage causes everyone in the cinema to nakedly dematerialise. The 572 residents of Friar, New Hampshire who wandered into the wilderness after a 1940 screening of Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) might have managed to keep their clothes on. But little else is known about the fate of the 272 whose bodies were never found, until someone unearths the co-ordinates at the local cinema and a film crew arrives to follow the expedition to locate the lost in Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton's YellowBrickRoad (2010).

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